UK prime minister Boris Johnson is facing new political agony in his handling of coronavirus, as Conservative MPs mobilise against “draconian” new restrictions while his scientific advisers press for new national lockdowns.
Graham Brady, chair of the powerful Tory backbench 1922 committee, is demanding that in future Mr Johnson gives MPs a vote on new measures to contain coronavirus, instead of relying on sweeping emergency powers.
The move reflects growing discontent among Tory MPs that Mr Johnson is restricting personal freedoms in an “un-Conservative” manner, while inflicting unnecessary harm on the economy.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer, is also urging Mr Johnson to hold back from another national lockdown, arguing that limits on social interaction should be the priority — not shutting down swaths of the economy.
But the prime minister is being pulled in the other direction by Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, who warned him last week that tough new measures were needed.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, confirmed on Sunday that the idea of a “circuit-breaker” strategy — a two-week national lockdown — was a “proposal that came from the scientists”.
Asked if a new national lockdown was coming, Mr Hancock told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that he hoped to avoid it, but added: “We have to be prepared to take action if that’s what’s necessary.”
Many Conservative MPs are already seething over what they regard as a series of mistakes made by Number 10 over its handling of Covid-19, Brexit negotiations and school exams.
Now, Sir Graham wants to give MPs a grip on the steering wheel as Mr Johnson prepares to announce new measures to counter what he last week called “the second wave” of coronavirus.
When the government seeks to renew emergency powers under the 2020 coronavirus act on September 30, Sir Graham will table an amendment requiring MPs to vote on future individual measures to control the virus.
He said the government was “simply in the habit of proceeding with these sweeping emergency measures without consulting parliament” and said a new parliamentary lock was needed.
Sir Graham said the new “rule of six” and the introduction of fines of up to £10,000 for people who failed to self-isolate were examples of “government by decree”.
Tory MPs privately rail against ministers such as Priti Patel, home secretary, who have encouraged people to report neighbours who broke the rules. “We are setting neighbour against neighbour — it’s mad,” said one MP.
Downing Street said that “MPs are an important part of the process”, but Tory insiders argued that Mr Johnson was not keen to see parliament having a vote on every measure to contain a fast-moving pandemic.
But Sir Graham said: “I think we have already seen some draconian restrictions on personal liberty and economic life introduced without proper scrutiny. My assumption [is] they will end up complying with the principles of this amendment or they will lose a vote on it.”
Mr Sunak and Alok Sharma, business secretary, share the view of many Tory MPs that a further national lockdown would be an economic calamity and are determined to keep businesses and shops open.
Mr Johnson, who held Covid-19 crisis talks with the chancellor last week, shares that prognosis and told MPs that another lockdown would be “a disaster” for the economy.
But the prime minister is also being urged by scientific advisers to avoid the mistakes of March and to act decisively now to avoid more deaths and disruption later in the autumn.
The Department of Health has “categorically” denied Westminster rumours that Prof Whitty had threatened to resign at any point, but his concerns about the rapid resurgence of the virus are acute.
“The scientific advisers are extremely pessimistic about the next six months,” admitted one Tory official. Pulled in two directions at once, Mr Johnson is facing yet another decisive moment for his premiership.
For now he has settled on a compromise, agreed with Mr Sunak last week, that the focus in England will be on restricting people from socialising, not stopping them going to school or work.
But the fragile compromise may not hold for long. The virus is spreading fast — hospitalisations are doubling every eight days — and the government’s test and trace system is buckling.
Mr Hancock on Sunday suggested that new national restrictions would have to come in “if people break the rules”, but Labour claimed that was an attempt to shift the blame on to the public and away from ministerial mishandling of the testing system, which has been struggling to cope with demand.
Some Number 10 officials privately refer to Dido Harding and James Bethell, the two Tory peers in charge of the testing programme, as “Laurel and Hardy”. On Sunday, Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory MP, suggested in the Telegraph that Mr Johnson should bring in the military to sort out the problem.
“They were warned to get this system fixed or risk a bleak winter,” said Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary.